Now militant groups, composed mostly of Saddam Hussein loyalists or Islamist extremists, appear to be exploiting divisions in the province, which lacks a unified security force of its own.
“I think the terrorist groups are concentrating on places like Kirkuk and Mosul, where they can instigate political differences among the groups,” says Najmaldin Karim, Kirkuk’s Kurdish governor, one of the few officials who has been willing to publicly urge US forces to stay. “The US can play a good role as a broker between different communities in Kirkuk and intervene in times of crisis.”
Iraqi leaders agreed this week to begin negotiations over a possible extension of the US troop presence in Iraq.
Saddam Hussein expelled tens of thousands of Kurds and Turkomans from the province and replaced them with ethnic Arabs. The goal was to ensure the uninterrupted flow of oil from the province by populating it with people whom the regime trusted.
US leaders have supported the rights of Kurds since toppling Mr. Hussein’s regime in 2003. But eight years later, Kirkuk – like much of Iraq – is still seen as an unfinished business in danger of collapse.
Although Kirkuk has been less affected than other provinces by the mayhem that has wracked the country, it has had its share of violence. In recent months, a series of bombings and assassinations rocked the province, arousing fears that the situation might further deteriorate if the United States withdraws its remaining forces.